Following box office success in partnership with Chen Kuo-fu as co-director of the Second Sino-Japanese War spy thriller The Message (2009), Gao Qunshu swaps espionage for explosions and goes solo with Wind Blast. Armed with a reported budget of CNY 30,000,000, Gao aims to up-the-ante in terms of Chinese genre cinema by delivering a mainland action picture that can compete with expensive Hollywood imports. However, one only needs to watch the initial fifteen minutes of Wind Blast to realise that it is actually the Hong Kong classics of Ringo Lam, Johnnie To and John Woo that have collectively served as Gao’s conceptual model for this quasi-Western blockbuster. The action begins with former underground boxer Zhang Ning (Xia Yu) seeking to provide for his pregnant girlfriend Sun Jing (Charlie Yeung) by carrying out a hit on a businessman, with the couple making their escape via the Gobi Desert. Their chances of a clean getaway are severely hindered by the fact that two teams from opposite sides of the law are on their trail: Detective Leopard (Duan Yihong) and his fellow officers Shepherd (Wu Jing), Mastiff (Ni Dahong) and Yak (Zhang Li) have been assigned the task of apprehending the hitman, but Ning’s decision to take a photograph of the man who hired him has also resulted in the dispatch of two assassins, Gao Mai (Francis Ng) and Nuo A (Nan Yu). Although the cops soon have their suspect in custody, a series of shoot-outs ensue once the assassins arrive on the scene.
While the Hong Kong influence is evident in Gao’s handling of an ensemble cast who are alternately positioned as pursuers or the pursued, characterisation only exists in broad strokes and never achieves the moral resonance of Lam, To or Woo. The assassins and cops of Wind Blast are defined by their weapons of choice and are largely interchangeable in terms of individual response to situations of danger or duress. This absence of character development may be a consequence of Wind Blast being a state-approved studio film; national politics are evident in the treatment of Ning, who insists that killing the businessman is the only bad thing he has ever done and complains of the social conditions that led him to carry out the contract, only for the cops to show little sympathy. Gao is less interested in such thematic staples as camaraderie, honour and loyalty as he is in combining the narrative template of the Hong Kong crime film with the aesthetic splendour of the Western. Aside from the city-set opening, events occur entirely in the desert, with swooping camerawork taking in the spectacular vistas, while characters often resort to traveling through the landscape by foot or on horseback and are framed against treacherous rocky backdrops. Such iconography is also juxtaposed with the modern elements of cell phones, heavy artillery, rock music, speeding vehicles and wads of Chinese currency circa 2010. It’s a mostly acceptable mix, although the harmonica-infused score perhaps over-states Gao’s admiration for the widescreen atmospherics of Sergio Leone.
The main selling point of Wind Blast is undoubtedly its set-pieces, which serve to show that mainland China can hold its own against Hollywood and Hong Kong in the action stakes; the highlight is a blistering chase sequence which has a truck trying to stop a jeep that is being driven in reverse, while Molotov cocktails are hurled amid the vehicular mayhem. As this automotive showdown takes place at the mid-point, Wind Blast struggles to maintain interest thereafter as Gao can only shuffle the repetitious captures and escapes. The climax takes place at a provincial police station with a stampede of horses and a snowstorm being added to the chaos, yet it is hard to care what happens to anyone at this stage. As with most mainland China studio productions, the money that went into making Wind Blast is certainly up on the screen, while Gao has managed to deliver a product that satisfies the requirements of the censorship board, entertains the local audience (Wind Blast was number one at the Chinese box office for three straight weeks on its release in October 2010), and is a suitable candidate for export (Hong Kong company Media Asia is handling international sales). Unfortunately, it is also an entirely impersonal undertaking, an action movie that has been assembled with sufficient skill but without any understanding of what makes assassins and cops such enduring archetypes for modern audiences. All the elements are in place, but Wind Blast is sadly much less than the sum of its parts.